For violinist Ray Chen, meet-and-greets with fans are a favorite part of his concerts and recitals. They are also a business imperative that builds loyalty by strengthening the connections he has made through social media.
“I see the signing line as playing a crucial role in my concert,” said Chen, who will appear Dec. 2-4 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, when he will be the soloist in Lalo's Symphonie espagnole. “It’s almost part of my brand because it's a way for me to say thank you to these people who need to feel connected. They come to enjoy the music, but they also come to get closer to the person they are connected with.”
Chen frequently refers to his online fans, which include nearly 300,000 followers on Instagram, 224,000 on Facebook, 214,000 on YouTube and another 37,000 on Twitter. Some come to his concerts with small gifts — like a homemade paper fan adorned with images of Chen’s face — in the hopes that he will feature them on his Instagram account. Others pose for selfies with the violinist, which are often promptly uploaded online. “My arm is basically a selfie-stick,” said Chen, joking, in one Instagram post featuring several photos with concertgoers.
Chen has cultivated his fan base by delivering a steady flow of photos and videos with clever captions and topics that push the right social media buttons: amusing animals, cute children, heartwarming stories and whimsical humor.
Education is also a focus. In a series of “practice challenges,” Chen gives brief master classes in knotty passages of Paganini with clever on-screen annotations. In 2019, he hosted “Play With Ray,” a competition in which amateur violinists submitted audition videos for an opportunity to perform with him in Bach’s Double Concerto at the Hollywood Bowl. Three finalists — from South Korea, Finland and Texas — were flown to California for the final round.
A spontaneous communicator who appears to consume such daredevil material for breakfast, Chen brings classical bona fides to the task. Born in Taiwan and raised in Brisbane, Australia, he began playing the violin at age of 4. At 15, he entered the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, and by age 21, had won first prizes at the Yehudi Menuhin (2008) and Queen Elisabeth (2009) competitions. He went on to record concertos for Sony Classical before signing with Decca in 2018.
Chen early on saw the need to distinguish himself and take a more proactive approach to his publicity, chronicling his life in locales from Colombia to Singapore. He says he does much of his video editing himself, sometimes at night after concerts. “That sort of diminishes the glory of being a soloist,” he said with a chuckle.
He also constantly analyzes the mix of content he’s producing. “You have to think of clever ways to talk about a concert so people don’t think that you're just a non-stop, 24/7 ad post.”
Chen sees the virtuoso repertoire as a link to the kinds of art and entertainment people consume online today. “When the average person sees something on social media,” Chen said, “it’s ‘how does this relate to me? Can I compare myself to it? Can I idolize it? Can I enjoy it?’ It has to relate to them.”
A version of this article previously appeared on Sounds and Stories, the predecessor site of Experience CSO.